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UK: Covid Uncertainty Disguises the Impact of Post-Brexit Migration Policy Changes

Dr. Hannah White OBE, Deputy Director of the Institute for Government in London

The emergence of the Omicron variant has introduced new uncertainty into the mobility picture for the UK in 2022, with Covid-related travel restrictions — which had gradually relaxed over the course of 2021 — reintroduced at the end of the year. Together with the new variant, the economic impact of Covid-19 and the introduction of new post-Brexit immigration policies make it harder than ever to predict migration flows to and from the UK in 2022.

Post-Brexit migration to the UK is easier for non-EU skilled workers

On balance, arrivals to the UK look likely to continue to be lower than the long-term average. The year to September 2021 saw a 69% drop in passenger arrivals to the UK compared with the previous year, and the UK Government has predicted a continuation of this trend in 2022. This prediction is based on an expectation of less EU work and study migration than when the UK was part of the EU, although any overall reduction in numbers may be counteracted by an increase in non-EU workers coming to the UK.

The UK’s post-Brexit immigration policy is designed to reduce migration overall while keeping the country open to skilled migrants — on the number of whom there is now no cap. Although the UK’s new Skilled Work visas require a job offer and minimum salary, this is reduced for workers on the Shortage Occupation List for holders of PhDs and for new entrants to the labor market. And under new rules it is easier for skilled migrants to stay in the country — a skilled worker can remain indefinitely in the UK without meeting a higher salary threshold for settlement if they keep extending their work visa, which the government hopes will attract potential high-value migrants.

Cost and skill requirements may deter some migrants

However, migrants may be discouraged by the fact that the UK’s immigration system is now one of the most expensive in the world. People migrating to the UK face a combination of application fees and extra charges, including the Immigration Health Surcharge. Employers also face additional costs in licenses and charges although the requirement for a Resident Labor Market Test — to check whether a role could be filled by a domestic applicant — has been removed.

For EU citizens, migration to the UK has become more difficult. Before Brexit, EU citizens were free to come to the UK to take up work of any skill level and salary, but they now face skill and salary requirements. They must secure a visa to live or work in the UK and pay additional costs including a National Health Service surcharge of GBP 624 per year.

It has also become harder for those defined by the government as ‘low skilled’ migrants to come to the UK, apart from a program for seasonal agricultural workers and the two-year Youth Mobility Scheme for citizens of eight countries who are aged between 18 and 30. These restrictions have proven controversial in the UK given the shortages of workers in many sectors including care, retail, and food production that emerged in the second half of 2021 and seem certain to continue in 2022.

Travel restrictions reimposed and then lifted over Omicron

Having largely done away with Covid-19 travel restrictions by the final quarter of 2021, the UK chose to reintroduce measures in late November in response to the emergence of Omicron. After South Africa announced the discovery of the new variant, the UK was among the first countries in the world to impose travel restrictions — initially on travelers from 10 southern African countries. England also reintroduced pre-departure testing for travelers to the UK in December in addition to the day-two testing already required. Both these measures have now been lifted but this has compounded the ongoing uncertainty over international travel.

Hong Kongers look set to remain an important group of migrants

In terms of likely trends in nationalities migrating to the UK, Hong Kongers with British National Overseas (BNO) status look likely to continue to constitute a large proportion in 2022. Between January and September 2021, almost 89,000 of the 2.9 million Hong Kong residents with BNO status applied to the new visa scheme created in response to restrictions on civil liberties in the province. According to research conducted in 2021, 38% of the 2.9 million were either considering applying for the visa or had already done so. This implies that people from Hong Kong will continue to be one of the UK’s most important immigrant groups in the next five years.

Afghan refugees expected, but asylum system overhaul on the way

Following the return of Taliban rule in Afghanistan, the UN estimates there are around 3.5 million internally displaced people within the country and 2.6 million around the world. Of these, some thousands are likely to resettle in the UK under schemes established by the government. According to ministers, the UK evacuated 17,000 people from Afghanistan from 1 April to 1 September 2021, many of whom will be eligible for either the Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy launched on 1 April 2021 to resettle interpreters and other staff who worked for the UK in Afghanistan or the Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme, which will support vulnerable people identified by the UN and other partners.

Other Afghans will make their way to the UK informally and claim asylum in the coming years. Their claims will likely be affected by the Nationality and Borders Bill — a major reform of the asylum system which is entering the Lords for its second reading, having passed the House of Commons last December. Ministers propose to treat asylum seekers differently if they enter the UK without authorization from countries in which the UK Government believes they could have claimed asylum.

This essay was first published in the Henley Global Mobility Report 2022 Q1.

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